The Persistence of Beauty

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the address delivered by invitation to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters at its annual meeting in June, 2015.

It may be that the greatest challenge facing those who love classical music in our modern age is the one facing those who do not also love Beauty. Those who reject the idea of Beauty, who deny its value, or who relegate it to meaninglessness – as in fact so many of today’s most vocal proponents of classical music emphatically do – are at a loss to explain what it is that music offers us. What makes it worth conserving? What gives it meaning or makes it relevant to our lives? If classical music is not about beauty, then what is it about?

We might convincingly characterize all of classical music’s present struggles, as well our orchestras’ persistent failures, to find a place in today’s Brave New World as attempts to answer that question, avoiding a commitment to Beauty at whatever the cost. Our orchestras are in this predicament because they are, for the most part, run by those who do not admit or understand the nature of Beauty – or else who cannot or will not defend it. And let’s face it, it’s a dangerous thing to defend Beauty today. You’re likely to be assaulted with the Ugly stick. Many of those who would have stood up for Beauty very probably learned along the way that it is better to keep your head down and your mouth shut; it is far pleasanter, in many ways, to just go along with the rabble than to oppose it. And for the rabble, it’s now an unassailable given that music is not about Beauty.

Of course, the most obvious efforts to deny Beauty in classical music are the attempts to make the music itself ugly, or else to make it ridiculous. With that tactic alone orchestras have managed to drive away a great many decent people during the course of the last century. Music, the Modernists told us, has to be ugly because modern life is ugly. Webern and his Modernist pals may have been quite certain we’d all one day be whistling their horrendous atonal “tunes,” but they’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who could recall one. The Postmodernists tell us music must be ridiculous because life is ridiculous. They brought us stunt-men like John Cage, and pieces like the one I recorded with a European orchestra recently that included a part in the score written for an inaudible dog whistle. To drive the point quite literally “home,” Modernists house our orchestras in brutalist buildings of rust- and algae-streaked concrete, and Postmodernists impose on us concert halls that look like crashed-landed spaceships. Well, perhaps much about the way we live now is ugly and ridiculous, but we have only to look around us to be convinced that it’s largely the crackpot theories of the Modernists and Postmodernists that make it so.

Still, perhaps in the wake of the sickening devastation of the First and Second World Wars it was difficult not to sympathize with the Modernists’ sentiment. And that’s when the idea first seriously took root in the international music community. The horror that broke upon the world with the dawn of industrialized warfare must have seemed to suggest that the modern condition was one of an abject and novel ugliness. What the argument depends upon, however, is the assumption that, in an ugly world, Beauty is no longer relevant.

And it’s a losing argument. The ugly and the ridiculous in musical composition have been largely defeated in our concert halls because they have been rejected unequivocally by the human ear. When they do appear in a concert program today they are not-quite-ingeniously sandwiched in the middle of the evening, because programmers know that audiences will arrive late or leave early to avoid them. And it’s no good scorning the audience for its “philistine” appreciation of Beauty. They’ll just elect not to show up for the scorn or for anything else, either. In fact, not surprisingly, that is exactly what has happened as naturally conservative audiences abandoned their symphony orchestras.

It’s the source of much consternation for those who expect classical music to go the way of art, where fame and fortune reward offensive scribbles, mindless drippings, pickled sharks, and giant balloon animals. David Goldman, writing as “Spengler” about the phenomenon, wondered at the fact that art galleries devoted to ugly modernist art should be full while concert halls featuring the musical equivalent are empty:

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

Music, perhaps for precisely this reason, has resisted the ideological uglification that the Brave New World order has imposed more successfully on its cousins Art, Poetry, and Literature. Music is still an unconquered repository of Beauty, standing like a fortress above the onslaught, built on a canon to which we still respond and always return. Orchestras, however disheartened they may profess to be at the prospect, will always perform Beethoven’s Fifth because audiences will always want to hear it. In fact, they will be more inclined to hear it the uglier our world becomes.

And that is because beauty does not deny the ugliness, the pain, the torments, the sorrows, or even the ordinariness or baseness of existence; it transforms them. Writing at the turn of the century about the push to make poetry vulgar, Samuel McChord Crothers put it in much the way any normal, decent person might. He called this person The Gentle Reader and he gave him these words:

When the poet delves in the grossness and the slag, he does so as one engaged in the search for the perfect. …So I say, when drain pipes and cross-cut saws and the beef on the butcher’s stalls are invested with beautiful associations and thrill my soul in some mysterious fashion, then I will make as much of these things as I do of the murmuring pines and the hemlocks. When a poet makes bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers to loom before my imagination in heroic proportions, I will receive them as I do the heroes of old. But, mind you, the miracle must be actually performed; I will not be put off with a prospectus.

In the canon of classical music, the miracle is often performed, and we attend concerts precisely to witness it – to take part in the miracle. Bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers alike realize in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – or in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Wagner’s Liebestod, Britten’s War Requiem, or the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, for instance – at once both the commonality and the peculiarity of their condition and its woes, and they participate in the transformation of the slag and sorrow that accompanies their journey through the world into something transcendentally beautiful that shines from beyond it. When we reject Beauty – when we insist on wallowing in vulgarity and ugliness – what we ultimately reject is this possibility of transcendence. It might be even more accurate to say that we reject Beauty because we first reject the Transcendent Himself.

Without a way to reach beyond it, we are left to wander for a lifetime through the earth-bound desolation of our material reality, after which there is simply nothing. We retain, nevertheless, our deep need to escape from the bleakness of existence. But our only option now is to create our own heaven right here in the dust. We must shape our physical world into Utopia, by ourselves, with just the strength of our wills.

So what next for those who insist that music is not about Beauty? If music cannot, through Beauty, transform our relationship with or transcend the ugliness of reality, then it must change physical reality itself in order to eliminate ugliness. It must transform society. Next comes the insistence that we attach classical music to an ideology – to “change we can believe in.”

Orchestras, desperate to be relevant now that Beauty has been declared ir-relevant, get busily to work on everything except that one thing which they essentially exist to do. Sure, they play their concerts every week, but they’ve become a little apologetic about that part – and, on top of that, a little ironic about the fact that they’re playing Beethoven again. Like the hipster who wears dirty flannels with his carefully-coifed mustache lest you mistake him for someone “fashionable”, orchestras today want you to focus on their plans to bring about social progress lest you mistake them for the inheritors and champions of an art form created by dead, white, privileged, Christian, heterosexual, European men. They, after all, the consensus seems to assure us, are the cause of everything we need to change about society.

And this is where most efforts to describe just what it is that classical music is about are concentrated today: it’s about making our world a better place. Musicians are styled as ambassadors of change and sent out into their communities to show everyone that they are somehow more important, or at least more relevant, than they are willing or able to argue that Bach and Beethoven are. Orchestras clamor for anything written by or celebrating life’s “victims”, hoping to refute their historical association with life’s vilified “winners”. They set their hands and their instruments heroically to the task of bringing an end to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental abuse, to repairing our broken families and our failing schools, and to curing all kinds of systemic “-isms”, depending on who you talk to. Of course, all these things are easy to count even if they are difficult to measure. But they are nigh to impossible to achieve.

What will happen, we have to wonder, when orchestras and the canon of classical music inevitably fail to bring about world peace, the end of poverty, environmental balance, and homogenous diversity? Like the purveyors of the ugly and the ridiculous, orchestras selling social progress are on a collision course with reality. How many more decent, ordinary people will our orchestras alienate with their gross misunderstandings of both the nature of classical music and human nature itself?

Well, if it can’t cure society’s ills, then maybe it can do something for us as individuals. There’s a frenzy of interest that surrounds advances in neuroscience and nano-technology that promise to explain how music enhances our brains, how it facilitates our synapses, how it makes us better at math, and ultimately how it makes us more successful in our careers. After all, it must have some use in the material world. What can it profit us?

Anyone familiar with the struggles facing the long tradition of classical liberal education in today’s cynical “diploma market” will recognize this lamentable tune. And it reminds me of an amusing account that Kitty Ferguson shares in her book, The Music of Pythagorus:

When someone asked what the practical use of one theorem was, Euclid turned aside to his slave, sniffed, and muttered, ‘He wants to profit from learning, give him a penny.’ The Pythagorean aphorism was ‘A diagram and a step (an advance in knowledge), not a diagram and a penny.’

It’s quite a slippery subject, and difficult to tackle in our utilitarian age.  There is a valuable little university that I frequently come across in my travels that always vividly reminds me of this challenge. And that is because, in passing by, one can’t fail to notice its slogan, finger-painted as it is in gigantic letters all over the windows of its most prominent building: “Knowledge that works.”

Of course, there is knowledge that works, and it’s very important: knowing how to construct a Gothic arch or how to decipher an MRI scan, for example. But music was never that kind of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, it was an essential part of the Quadrivium, the second tier of the seven Liberal Arts – distinct from the Practical Arts such as medicine and architecture – and prerequisite to studies in philosophy and theology. All men whose station in life freed them from the necessity of learning a craft or trade studied music. It is not at all extraordinary that King Henry V composed some very respectable pieces himself – a Gloria and a Sanctus both survived the ravenous fires of the Reformation.

But even without knowing any of that, we might look around at the audiences in our concert halls. It’s becoming something of a cliché to remark on the grey hair. We wring our hands and wonder what would bring the young people to concerts? What do they want out of the experience? More fun? More excitement? More sex? But our obsession with youth and Youth Culture aside, what might we suppose our elders are hoping to “get” from the music? Do we ever ask ourselves why they make the considerable and ever-increasing effort to attend concerts? Why are those who contribute most generously to our institutions of classical music also the ones have so little time left to enjoy them?

The wisdom of age might consist largely of the ability to appreciate finally the value of things because there are simply fewer opportunities to use them as means. Striving gives way to circumspection; we draw nearer to the threshold that separates this world from the next. As we approach our natural end, perhaps we also approach an intimacy with ends.

Obviously, our elders come to concerts not because they hope the music will make them better at math or more successful in their careers. There is no use to which they plan to put the music they come to hear, cleverly plying it to realize their five- or ten-year plans. I think if we asked them, we would find that classical music for them is only about Beauty. I think they would sympathize with John Ruskin, who said, “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

And maybe this is the real reason that audiences for classical music are aging: that it takes so much longer for us to shake off the utilitarian mindset that pervades our modern world, so well-rooted it has become in our unexamined ways of thinking and being. It is harder and harder for us to find our way through our inherent materialism to that space in which we value a thing for itself alone. And until we can sit with classical music and value it in that way, then we don’t really value it at all.

As James Matthew Wilson reminded us at our conference last year, “Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.” And what is classical music if it’s not this thing: a good in itself, valued for the sake of Beauty? All the for-sake-of-whiches that we try to attach to it fail to justify its existence and explain its value because they begin by precluding the thing which classical music essentially is.

Many of those who have abandoned classical music to its painful Modernist and Postmodernist contortions, including many of the conservatives who should have been its natural allies, have taken refuge in popular or rock music instead. And while that is understandable – because the pop and rock genres never abandoned the tonal language that makes music intelligible, and on top of that borrowed much of what works best from the classical tradition – it is also not a fair trade.

Classical music is almost entirely unlike pop or rock music. It belongs in a different category altogether. It is not something to be overheard, but something to which we must give our full attention. It is not entertainment, but something much more like a religious experience. In fact, the birth and history of classical music is inextricably joined to the history of the Church. And the completeness of their affinity is reflected in the traditions of the concert hall, in the way we approach the music and the way that we hear it. As Roger Scruton explains,

You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.

The music, like the religious mystery, draws us into it and holds us in its enchantment. It opens for us a door into a space that exists beyond our physical world, and what we hear moving in the music through that space is us. The symphony takes us on a journey through the secretive shadows and the uncertain vistas of our human condition. It touches those things of value within us, and it invites them to witness the miracle of transubstantiation wherein the dross of our daily existence, however trivial or tragic, is changed into the possibility of our salvation. “Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony,” Scruton confirms, “have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being.”

Nothing like this happens at a rock concert. To begin with, we do not approach the music with the same preparation of stillness and silence. Instead, we are animated by a noisy sort of excitement that anticipates, in Scruton’s words again, “participation, rather than contemplation.”

If the classical concert is more like a religious experience, the rock concert, Scruton explains,

is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

There is, of course, a certain exhilaration that this kind of raucous musical release brings us. But it is not like the transcendence that classical music offers us, either in its durability or its depth.

Johann Sebastian Bach said that “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” That is another way to say that the aim and final end of all music should be Beauty, for it has always been with beauty that we glorify God just as it has always been beauty that refreshes our souls.

Bach’s is an unpopular notion in our secularist age. That the truth of it shines through all our willful and accidental corruptions and corrosions testifies to the fact that classical music is still indisputably and essentially about Beauty, even for those of us who do not believe in God. Beauty falls like the refreshing rain on all our souls alike.

But classical music will need champions in the camp of conservative thought to survive for the benefit of future generations. For those who might think they love classical music, but who detest Beauty or the God it traditionally glorifies even more, the only thing left to do is to silence the music in order to forget the God. And that, I suspect, is the greater part of the battle we’re facing next.

About the Author

Andrew Balio has served as principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since his invitation by Yuri Temirkanov in 2001, and recently served as principal of the Oslo Philharmonic during its 14/15 season. He is former principal of the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Estado de Mexico. Andrew’s interest in orchestral affairs and challenges began while he was a music student, renting a room from the Boston Symphony’s long-time chairman of the Players’ Committee and thereby gaining a unique and candid vantage point from which to consider the inner workings of a highly successful organization. In Baltimore, he served on various orchestral committees before formulating his first strategic plan for the organization called Repositioning the BSO in 2003, collaborating with Robin-Marie Williams, strategic planner for NASA and the Department of Defense. His many years of watching, studying, and seeking out the experts culminates with his founding of the Future Symphony Institute. More recently, Andrew has been called upon again to present a new value strategy for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and continues his ongoing efforts to fundamentally change the patron experince. Andrew remains active as a teacher, performer, committee member, and as an avid student of business, philosophy, and the challenges of our modern culture.
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Discussion

  • “Music, perhaps for precisely this reason, has resisted the ideological uglification that the Brave New World order has imposed more successfully on its cousins Art, Poetry, and Literature.”

    Where has this happened? A lot of music I have heard from North America and most of Europe recently was hideous, and the rest was just very boring. The only regions I heard pleasant music from were parts of the Balkans and the Caucasus, and a large amount of it consisted of modified folk songs rather than completely new music. While most of those countries do not seem to be producing much in the way of visual art or poetry, they were not historically famous for them to begin with. In the USA I have also personally seen open resistance against “uglification” from visual artists (both in terms of their actual work and their public statements about art) and none from musicians; from research, I have seen the same pattern in France and Italy.

    “But even without knowing any of that, we might look around at the audiences in our concert halls. It’s becoming something of a cliché to remark on the grey hair. We wring our hands and wonder what would bring the young people to concerts?”

    The worst kind of people to involve in a tradition are people who act apologetic about it, rather than proud of it, especially if they are also willing to act against their own ethnic interests for social approval. This is exactly the kind of people that the previously mentioned socially conscious globalist fluff attracts. As a result, classical music forums are full of emotionally fragile losers exchanging trivia, and articles are written by “experts” who are no better. Even from the internet alone, one would get an impression that the classical music scene does not feel like a real music scene and is full of delusion, bad communication, and people with extensive credentials who do nothing useful. Many people of all ages, but even more amongst the young, will be unmotivated to go to events full of people they have nothing in common with and feel uncomfortable around, even if they like some of the music.

    “Many of those who have abandoned classical music to its painful Modernist and Postmodernist contortions, including many of the conservatives who should have been its natural allies, have taken refuge in popular or rock music instead. And while that is understandable – because the pop and rock genres never abandoned the tonal language that makes music intelligible, and on top of that borrowed much of what works best from the classical tradition – it is also not a fair trade.”

    Not understandable at all, actually. They could just listen to European folk music. Pop and rock might be more “intelligible” than Webern, but intelligible ugly music is not a meaningful improvement over unintelligible ugly music. Whether one attempts to create music with tone clusters, combinatorial hexachords and klangfarbenmelodie, or with blues scales, badly voiced block chords, pitch bends and whiny singing, the result will be disgusting either way.

    Unfortunately, multiple classical music writings from American conservatives follow almost the same format (thankfully this one had no mention of jazz and no Plato quotes). Include paragraphs about the importance of beauty or truth, preferably with some mention of transcendence and the human condition. Atonal composers of the 1920s that most people have never heard? Clearly the root of all evil. Rock “music” that turned inept musicians into millionaires, lowered musical standards around the world, and helped turn countless ethnic Europeans against their own culture? Well, it does not reach the exalted mystical humanistic depth of classical music, but it has chords in it so it is not that bad.

    • “…but it has chords in it so it is not that bad.”

      You typed this as sarcasm but I view it as truth.

      Even a largely substance-less rock song played by a mediocre band is more rewarding to listen to than atonal classical music. Subjective? Sure, but so is finding no value in popular genres.

      While no other genre of music can duplicate the transcendental experience of hearing good classical music as this excellent piece states, there is value to be had in even rock and roll that beats out atonality by a mile. Why? Because the human ear lives for harmony. It’s one of the primary reasons classical music is so effective – few other times can your ears witness harmony as breathtaking as when listening to an orchestra.

      There is a large quantity of classical musicians of a younger generation like myself who go to hear an orchestra play Mahler 2 and listen to Rihanna on the way home. A friend of mine lives and breathes orchestral masterworks when he’s not actually performing them, yet his knowledge of all things Guns ‘n’ Roses is the envy of any rock fan. The stigma of those who like classical rejecting all other forms of music is one of the reasons it has become unpopular. My own music collection his hugely varied – put on shuffle, one track could be a movement from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the next could be early 2000s trance music, the next could be from the soundtrack of any number of movies or video games, the next could be Count Basie, the next could be Reel Big Fish ska punk, and the next could be Shakira. There are many classical musicians coming out of the woodwork whose love of music is more broadly defined – while classical remains unequaled, we are servants of all music. I would define myself as a servant of harmony first and foremost.

      Additionally, if “badly voiced block chords, pitch bends and whiny singing” is all you get out of rock and roll, you haven’t listened to the right rock and roll. Every genre has something to offer, and rock and roll is far more diverse than modern punk rock. There are rock songs out there, such as “Time” by the Alan Parsons Project, that are impressive not just because they are competent, but because they come close to the transcendence classical music offers in fifty five minutes less time. One primary reason rock and roll is dismissed by classical musicians is because the format is easily attainable by even the most talentless everyman in his garage, so there are a lot more mediocre and downright bad rock songs than classical pieces. Every genre has its good and bad, classical music included. Modern classical’s bad is so bad that we are here discussing an essay written largely about it. I would argue that the worst rock and roll song is still better than a large portion of contemporary classical music, whose emotionless (in the eyes of everyone except the composer, much like the rose tinted glasses of the modern artist who paints a green square and then extols its profundity) existence renders it classifiable as noise and not music. Even rock and roll is still music, based solely on the unbridled emotions present at any rock concert.

      Am I arguing that the talentless individuals now ludicrously wealthy and famous through popular music deserve it? Of course not, but for every Justin Bieber there is a Jimi Hendrix.

      • The human ear benefits from harmony, but rarely lives for it. Otherwise, it would be very common in traditional music rather than very rare, and highly developed monophonic styles such as Persian or Ottoman court music would be nonexistent.

        I am not defending avant-garde music, which I see no value in, but drawing attention to the trend of valuing convenience at the expense of integrity and any possibility of real reform. Atonal music is less of a threat to traditional European music, whether classical or folk, than rock, but an easier target. There are far more composers incorporating jazz, which is also very far removed from classical melodic and rhythmic principles, into their works than serialism. Do I ever see any articles in any publication giving them any criticism, let alone the condemnation they deserve? No. While I would generally like to ignore blues as much as possible, giving it a good evisceration in an article on aesthetics would be great, given both how incredibly ugly it sounds and how “highly influential” it is (true, since some elements of it have polluted music around the world and are getting difficult to escape from). That also never happens.

        While I did not go into detail, it should have been fairly clear that I do not only listen to classical music, although I did at one time. Actually, I have not listened to classical music in months and have been listening mostly to Eastern European folk and popular music (Dagestani and Chechen pop, Serbian and Bosnian turbofolk, Bulgarian chalga) to find something else to play. The popular styles were usually better and quite different from western pop with regard to melody, rhythms, and ornamentation, and used some creative mixtures of electronic and traditional instruments, but were still not of impressive quality, and some of them did arrangements of folk songs that were better than their original material.

        My comment about “blues scales, badly voiced block chords, pitch bends” would actually describe Jimi Hendrix just as well as what little modern punk rock I have heard. The first and third traits are also recognised as common elements of many rock songs, especially older ones, even by people who like rock.

    • “The worst kind of people to involve in a tradition are people who act apologetic about it, rather than proud of it, especially if they are also willing to act against their own ethnic interests for social approval.” The term ‘ethnic interests’ is racist and unacceptable in the context of a discussion about classical music. A cultural tradition, of whatever kind, can be chosen, entirely independently from whatever ethnic background. A cultivation of classical music and understanding of its values is not the prerogative of conservatives, or progressives, or whatever world view. A multiculti society can be made-up of very different ethnicities and still have its historically-defined central musical culture as an important institution. If cultural minorities were more stimulated to take part in this musical culture, crossing cultural boundaries would be easier. This is a mine field of identity problems and value frameworks and deserves an entirely separate essay.

      • Thank you! I read that sentence was chagrined as well to see ‘ethnic interests’ (amongst other things the commentor wrote).

  • Andrew,
    Beautifully thought out and written Andrew. You are so on target! Einstein would have seconded your premise as he wrote: “Mozart’s music is so pure and so beautiful that I see it as the reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” Well done! Beat the drum more loudly and, God willing, people will feel the rhythm and respond.
    Paco

  • The difficulty with the notion of beauty is that it has so many different meanings with so many different people in so many different contexts. But everybody understands, in general, to which experience the word is related, like ‘justice’ or ‘love’. Art music, if it is really very good, ennobles emotional experience and gives it a meaning, or reveals meaning in it, which lifts subjective experience above material and worldly concerns, thereby confirming a deep human instinct: that we are not material beings and that we are related to each other, across the boundaries of time and space. That is why much classical music has an identity-confirming effect, as if it speaks to our real self, and therein lies its moral element.

    I don’t think one should a defence of beauty in music, or a defence of classical music in general, see as a ‘natural’ part of a conservative world view or mind set, whatever that may mean: art is something in itself.

    It may be helpful to consider much new modernist art, be it music or visual, as primitive rather than ugly. There can be beauty in primitive art, a form of beauty not to be confused by a beauty that is much more developed and touches many more receptive emotions. The Pollock drippings are not meaningless and ugly, but very simple demonstrations of how patterns of different structure and colour can suggest depth: a visual little trick. Once seen, you have experienced the meaning, which is very thin and primitive in comparison with the better art from the past, but is something in itself, a way of being aware of the visual interest of simple patters. After seeing some of that kind of abstract art, one may notice better than before the interest of, say, the patterns of tree roots, or any pattern in a natural environment. Sonic art, like that of Boulez, can have interesting, pleasing and at moments beautiful colour patterns, which have their meaning in themselves. Also quite thin as an aesthetic experience, but it has its own value. If sonic art – i.e. art that has its meaning exclusively in its sonic surface, a materialistic art – is presented as music and performed in the context of a musical concert, serious problems arise. The beauty of art music is more than its sound, and also lies in its inner space and psychological meaning.

  • Thank you for mentioning the problems utilitarianism have inflicted on art. Too often these days, it is lost on people the paradox that the arts’ ‘uselessness’ is actual its greatest contribution. It is personally soul-tiring to constantly be expected to be useful, as though my existence is less worthwhile if I’m not always busy doing; classical music, amongst other things, reminds me that simply being can be pretty wonderful and beautiful. (Side note: When I took a music aesthetics course in college, I proffered my idea(l)s about Beauty in art. This elicited a snicker from one of the other students, very much a partisan for post-modernism, who essentially treated such thoughts as childish. The professor, thankfully, was much more open-minded and amenable to my stance.)

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